It’s not every day that New Yorkers have the choice between two simultaneous exhibitions of works by Jean-Michel Basquiat. “pleasure king”, an immersive experience designed by architect David Adjaye and curated by the artist’s sisters Lisane Basquiat and Jeanine Heriveaux, includes a recreation of Jean-Michel’s childhood bedroom and studio and costs $35 from entrance. “Art and objectivity”, curated by art historian Dieter Buchhart at Nahmad Contemporary, brings together an extraordinary treasure trove of paintings that Basquiat made on doors, windows and a refrigerator.
Although “King Pleasure” also includes a number of unreleased pieces, the focus is clearly on the artist’s life, so I focused on the Nahmad show, whose sparse staging gives you a better chance to engage with the work itself. But you should keep his biographical background in mind.
Young and ambitious, Basquiat strode straight into the center of the New York art world barely out of his teens, exhibiting with some of the country’s most influential gallerists, haunting nightclubs with Andy Warhol. and producing a staggering amount of artwork before he died of a heroin overdose, aged 27, in 1988. In 2017, one of his canvases sold for over $110 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by an American artist.
He was also the Brooklyn-born son of a Haitian father and a Boricua mother, and although his family was not poor, he spent a few meager years on his own before he started selling work. When he hit the big artistic moment, he was one of the few black faces there — and issues of race and class, complicated by his own extreme experience, are all over his work.
Like most artists, Basquiat drew as a child, copying famous anatomical drawings from “Gray’s Anatomy.”” while recovering from a car accident. His first real foray into the world of adult art, however, was via the SAMO graffiti tag, which he and his high school friend Al Diaz displayed around SoHo and the visual arts school. Before switching to canvas, Basquiat used “found materials” such as discarded cardboard and paper or construction debris. This was partly born out of necessity – the canvas costs money, while broken windows were there for the taking in midtown Manhattan in the 1970s.
But Basquiat’s use of found materials was also, as the painted windows, doors and wooden fence sections in “Art and Objecthood” make clear, a bold artistic strategy that carried over to even his most conventional endeavours. . Unlike ready-mades, the manufactured products that Marcel Duchamp exhibited as art in the early years of the 20th century, Basquiat’s found objects are not exactly sculpture. These are surfaces on which he can paint. But because they are also recognizable objects in their own right, they have a kind of seductive ambiguity. You can’t quite see “Untitled (Refrigerator)” (1981) as only a device, or only a surface to draw on – the longer you look, the more it seems to oscillate between the two categories. And once you’re primed for that kind of ambiguity, you start seeing it everywhere. In another context, “Multiflavors” (1982), a royal blue canvas on exposed wooden frames, could look like a painting. Here, it is also a very particular object.
Basquiat didn’t spend long writing graffiti, but he used his techniques throughout his career. The graffiti artist’s pared-back repertoire of easy-to-recognize signs can be as effective on a gallery wall as it is on the side of a building, and one of his favorites – a simple icon-shaped crown – appears on the first piece. from “Art and Objecthood”, a white wooden cabinet door titled “Minor Success” (1980). Below is a featureless face and a cartoonish sports car.
“If you ask 10 people” about the crown, says Buchhart, the curator, “they will tell you 10 different meanings.” He goes on to quote Basquiat’s oft-quoted remark that his artistic subjects – musicians, athletes, artists – were “royalty, heroism and the street”, and the way the crown serves to highlight images or particularly special works for the artist.
Essentially, however, the crown claims a figurative mantle of royalty for the artist himself, for the figure he represents, or both – Basquiat’s faces and bodies often read at least partially as self-portraits. But it’s also more nuanced than that, especially as wielded by a young black artist determined to become a celebrity. You have to wonder what kind of social context compelled him to make such pointed assertions of dignity. Is this a situation in which black faces struggle to be recognized as individuals? Or one in which status comes from owning material objects like a luxury car?
Another aspect of graffiti that Basquiat retained was the use of writing for visual effect. In many earlier collages and works on paper, a deluge of capitalized writing fills every available square inch. But you can’t read cover to cover and expect to find an argument. What you get instead is a cloud of loose associations more similar to a picture, in the way you read it, than to ordinary prose or even poetry.
This quality is amplified by the way Basquiat mixes drawing and writing. If you look at “Multiflavors”, you’ll find that it has a three-pointed yellow crown in the middle and a cloud of red and yellow circles on one side, and white, yellow and pink writing, laid out on blocks of black and blue, forms a striking composition. When you come to read it, you find a cluster of what appear to be references to advertisements or restaurant signs, phrases like “cheap food” and “HACKED CHICKEN WITH MULTI-FLAVORS”. You can’t tell for sure if it’s satire or poetry, angry, exuberant or funny. But that could almost be all of them.
One thing in particular that is easier to see in “Art and Objecthood” than in the overwhelming visual cacophony of “King Pleasure” is the conservative manner in which Basquiat organized the elements of his paintings. The profusion of markings can be deceiving, but if you recognize the stripes and scrawls in “Minor Success”, for example, as providing texture rather than so much separate information, you’ll see that the arrangement of the crown, face and the car couldn’t be simpler. A chunky little fridge is adorned with a flurry of letters and a face in “Untitled (Refrigerator)”, but they stop just short of the handle, leaving the lower section mostly empty to balance their effect. And even when each mark truly has the same weight, as in an intricately painted yellow door, Basquiat maintains careful control of shape and color to create an overall effect of harmony and stability that balances the frenetic energy of its lines.
Perhaps the most stunning piece in “Art and Objecthood” is an untitled painting from 1982 – the year the artist himself claimed to have “made the best paintings of all time”. Made in acrylic and enamel on a wrapping cover mounted on exposed wooden frames, it shows a black face with white features and a blood-red skull marked with small black lines like watermelon seeds.
It’s a stark portrayal of the psychic toll of racism: Even though the slurs and insulting tropes leave him gory and exposed, the character wears a “white” expression to get along. It’s also another majestic composition, balancing a dense figure on one side with empty space on the other and outlining both to show them off. And it’s as good a place as any to study what might be the most distinctive feature of Basquiat’s work – his line.
The line that describes this skull shivers like someone naked in a snowstorm. He makes a break in the jaw, uneven eyebrows, a bump on the crown of the skull. This leaves nothing unclear; the drawing is as easy to read as a geometric diagram. But this tremor transmits additional information. It gives the figure a particular intensity, makes the eyes squint and cringe, and it gives a similar intensity to the artwork as a whole, evoking the tension and energy that must have gone into making it. . At the same time, it gives you a sense, more vivid than any simple biography, of the personality of the man who drew it – maniacal and melancholic, electric, incandescent.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Art and Objectity
Through June 11, Nahmad Contemporary, 980 Madison Avenue, third floor, 646-449-9118; nahmadcontemporary.com.